Yoko Ono Rocks

What a revelation MoMA’s exhibit of Yoko Ono’s early work is! Just watching the film of her Cut Piece from 1965 is astonishing. She sits on the floor with a pair of scissors at her side. Audience members are invited to walk up to her and cut a piece of her clothing off—a simple task, laced with sexuality and danger. All the while she sits still, her face a mask of zen-like awareness—composed yet vulnerable, intelligent yet helpless, modest yet brazen. In using her own body as part of the artwork, she anticipates women artists like Cindy Sherman and Ana Mendieta. Click here for a YouTube clip of Albert Maysles’ film of Cut Piece.

Yoko Ono in Cut Piece (1964) Carnegie Recital Hall, 1965. Photo © Minoru Niizuma. Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive, New York

Yoko Ono in Cut Piece (1964) Carnegie Recital Hall, 1965. Photo
© Minoru Niizuma. Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive

The Dawn of Performance Art

Not unsurprisingly, Cut Piece was named by The Guardian one of the 10 most shocking performance pieces ever. . But I am interested in it less for its outrageousness and more for its connection to dance and performance art. It was not unlike some of Anna Halprin’s work of the ’60s, for example, the slow sequence in Parades and Changes in which the performers are dressing and undressing while focusing steadily on another person.

That kind of gaze became known as the downtown “neutrality.” I’ve seen a similar combination of guts and neutrality in work by Yvonne Rainer, and the combination of a simple structure with sensuality in Simone Forti’s work. Rainer and Forti (both of whom had studied with Halprin), were colleagues of Ono’s in the early ’60s, sometimes performing in the same shows.

Ono with Bag Piece (1964) At MoMA, photo by Ryan Muir

Ono with Bag Piece (1964). Homepage photo of Ono with Apple, both photos at MoMA by Ryan Muir

Another interactive performance piece, called Bag Piece (1964–2015) is based, touchingly, on her own shyness. The instructions are for two people to go under the bag, take their own clothes off, put them back on, then emerge from the bag. In the display type, she writes, “I didn’t know how to explain to people how shy I was. When people visited I wanted to be in sort of a box with little holes where nobody could see me but I could see the m through the holes.”

Talking About Crotch Aesthetics

Still shot of Film No. 4

Still shot of Film No. 4

I recently posted my musings about the new frankness of what I call crotch aesthetics. But I realized when I saw this exhibit that Ono was way ahead of today’s artists in her crotch derring-do. In Film No. 4, she filmed nude people walking away from her, one at a time, the camera trained on the lower rear end. You get to see how different people move their buttocks as they walk.

The John Cage Influence

Many of the artists in Ono’s milieu were inspired by John Cage, whose famous composition class at The New School she sometimes attended. He challenged the separation of music and theater and, even further, the separation of art and life.

In the early 60s, that cross-discipline spirit was fostered in Ono’s loft on Chambers Street, which soon became a hotbed of hybrid work by musicians, visual artists, and dancers. Forti created a landmark evening called “Dance Constructions” there in 1961. In it she presented her now-classic works like Huddle, Slantboard and Roller Boxes.

Just as Judson Dance Theater was an offshoot of John Cages’ teachings (via Robert Dunn), Ono was an offshoot in a different direction. Already possessed of an idiosyncratic imagination that knew both pleasure and pain on a cosmic level, she extended his idea that any sound can be music to any action can be art. In the new book John Cage Was, she acknowledged his influence by beginning her contribution with this claim:  “The history of Western music can be divided into B.C. (before John Cage) and A. C. (after Cage).” The respect was likely mutual. Cage, who himself was influenced by Asian ideas, had dedicated a piece of music to Ono.

A taunting kind of playfulness infuses the current exhibit, officially called Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971. That too is in line with Cage’s endearing optimism. You only have to go as far as Twitter to find further examples of that quality. She recently tweeted, “Be playful. Dance with your mind and body. It’s such fun that ‘They’ might start to dance with us, too!”

The Prank Became Real

Ono with Standing Woman (1932) by Gaston Lachaise, MoMA c. 1960–61. Photo © Minoru Niizuma. Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive

Ono with Standing Woman (1932) by Gaston Lachaise, MoMA, c. 1960–61, Photo © Minoru Niizuma, Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive

Cut Piece was one of the few performances Ono made. More often she created suggestions for a performance or exhibit rather than the thing itself. Take for instance her semi-fictitious announcement of a one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. She sent out publicity, took out ads, and made an elaborate catalog of a show that consisted only of a statement that a jar of flies drenched in Ono’s perfume had been released at MoMA and people were following the flies all over the city. Now, more than 40 years later, that ridiculous prank has led to a one-woman show. And it’s a spectacular, provocative, many-layered experience.


Her Rising Stature

Although I’ve always been dazzled by Ono’s gifts (I chose her song “Walking on Thin Ice” for my choreography once), this exhibit transforms her in my mind from a marginal music maker and conceptual artist to a major figure in 20th century art. The exhibit encompass 125 drawings, posters, objects (including a whole room in which all the furniture is cut in half) , audio recordings, films. Everything, whether an instruction piece or an object, are exercises in expanding the imagination.

Half-A-Room (1967)

Half-A-Room (1967)

One could view her 2013 music video of Bad Dancer, in which she’s not a bad dancer at all (at the age of 80), as an update of her ’60s ideas. It combines painting, costume design, music and dance, and has garnered over a million hits.

Capsules of Infinite Imagination

What we take away from Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971, is a restless, curious mind that puts fantasies in the form of challenges, riddles, or haiku. Many of the verbal riddles and instructions come from the pages of her book Grapefruit, which was written between 1961 and ’64. I will leave you with three examples from this collection of enigmatic instructions.

One page was written for Robert Morris, who was married to Simone Forti at the time.

“Find a stone that is your size or weight.

Crack it until it becomes a fine powder.

Dispose of it in the river.

Send small amounts to your friends.

Do not tell anybody what you did.

Do not explain about the powder to the

Friends to whom you sent it.”


Another page was written as “Voice piece for soprano”:


  1. against the wind
  2. against the wall
  3. against the sky”


Lastly, Dawn Piece:

“Take the first word that comes across your mind. Repeat the word until dawn.”



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Simone Forti, Oguri, & Roxanne Steinberg

Oguri, photo by Pep Daude

Oguri, photo by Pep Daude

There’s a natural affinity between the Japanese form of butoh and the ’60s improvisation ideas of Americans like Anna Halprin and Simone Forti. The connection to nature, the respect for intuition, the acceptance of awkwardness, are shared values. A new, three-way collaboration between postmodern pioneer Simone Forti, butoh master Oguri, and American dancer Roxanne Steinberg comes to Venice, California, this month.

Simone Forti, photo by Ian Douglas

Simone Forti, photo by Ian Douglas

Flowers and Vessel is inspired by the tradition of Japanese flower arranging, which has as much to do with intuition as with careful aesthetics. One trains for years to sharpen one’s instincts. According to the press release, “In a meeting of spirits, earthly and divine, the flower responds to the vessel. It is an act of love, of romance. Without hesitation, like the action of throwing something somewhere, the arrangement is revealed not imposed.”

Roxanne Steinberg, photo by Eoin McLoughlin

Roxanne Steinberg, photo by Eoin McLoughlin

Forti and Oguri have shared programs in both Tokyo and Los Angeles. For Flowers and Vessel, they will dance a new duet, and then, with the addition of Steinberg, a trio. Steinberg has partnered with Oguri for years. About this collaboration, she wrote in an email: “We are all after finding the essential voice … dance at its most true and unbound manifestation.”

Forti’s connection to Asian artists dates back to at least 1961, when she created an evening of Dance Constructions at Yoko Ono’s loft in Lower Manhattan. The program listing for this historic event (historic in its integration of dance and utilitarian objects) is currently on display as part of the Yoko Ono exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

Presented by Body Weather Laboratory, Flowers and Vessel arrives at Electric Lodge in Venice, CA May 29–31. Click here for tickets.

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My Tribute to Wendy Whelan

On May 2, the Danspace Project gala honored Wendy Whelan and Eiko Otake. I was happy to be asked to make the presentation to Whelan. Here is my tribute to her, and…really to both of them:

Fifteen years ago, I was watching a Balanchine piece at New York City Ballet. It was not one of my favorite Balanchines. I do love some of  his ballets, but this one was orderly and symmetrical and courtly. And then this wind blew through the stage, rustling up the air and changing everything. The wind was Wendy Whelan.

This is what I wrote about her at the time:  “Wendy Whelan, dancing the lead for the first time, makes her entrance — luxuriously, energetically, extravagantly billowing thither and yon… She is an impetuous creature… edgy, not quite human, threatening to elude the grip of her escort at every dive.” [This quote is in my book.]

Whelan wih Josh Beamish in Restless Creature, photo by Christopher Duggan

Whelan wih Josh Beamish in Restless Creature, photo by Christopher Duggan. Homepage photo by Nisian Hughes

She brought a modernist sensibility to NYCB. A simple passé became a revelation of the body’s architecture. She’s the epitome of what Annie-B Parson calls “fact-based choreography.” No frills, just the facts, like what Merce Cunningham demanded. She bypasses pretty and goes straight to beauty, a cut-glass kind of beauty, a beauty that elevates clarity to something spiritual.

She was a favorite of Jerome Robbins. She was fabulous in his woman-as-man-killing-insect ballet The Cage. “Jerry let me go with that one,” she told me. “I could use my weird assets.” You know, most ballet dancers don’t talk about themselves like that.

Whelan and Craig Hall in Wheeldon's After the Rain. Photo: Erin Baiano

Whelan and Craig Hall in Wheeldon’s After the Rain. Photo: Erin Baiano

And she became a muse for Christopher Wheeldon. Her active participation in the making of his dances allowed him to be geometrically complex, at times supremely simple, and unexpectedly tender. Every time I saw her dance his After the Rain duet, I would get psyched to see my favorite details, like hands pressing together behind the back. Nobody else did it the way she did it. Watching Wendy, I understood the saying God is in the details.

Her quality of lightness is especially hard to describe. It’s not a feminine lightness. She’s not the typical balletic Sylph. It’s a lightness of the mind, a readiness to levitate, an affinity for the air.

Outside of NYCB, one of her gigs was with Peter Boal’s small company, which I had made a piece for. When Peter asked her to choose someone to choreograph on her, she did not pick a ballet choreographer. She chose Shen Wei. Later on, she worked with Stephen Petronio.

Whelan rehearsing the Kyle Abraham section of Restless Creature, photo by Christopher Duggan

Whelan rehearsing Restless Creature, photo by Christopher Duggan

And then, still feeling restless, she came up with an idea to delve into contemporary choreography even more: She asked four very different dance artists to make a duet—and dance with her in that duet. They are Kyle Abraham, Brian Brooks, Alejandro Cerrudo, and Josh Beamish. The project is Restless Creature, which you can see at the Joyce later this month.

Wendy has become a leader in dance, not by making dances or by running a big company, but by being an interpreter of great depth, a co-conspirator in making new work, and a catalyst to bring ballet and modern dance together.

Since Danspace was started by a poet, as Claudia La Rocco reminded us in her Platform this spring, I want to pay tribute to Wendy Whelan and Eiko Otake for the poetry they have given us in dance. So I am going to read from—it’s not actually a poem, but—two sentences from my favorite essay by Merce Cunningham, “The Impermanent Art.” It’s from 1952 but he could just as well be talking about Wendy and Eiko.

“Dance is most deeply concerned with each single instant as it comes along, and its life and vigor and attraction lie in just that singleness. It is as accurate and impermanent as breathing.”

This tribute is also posted here on the Danspace blog site.




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Are Crotch Aesthetics Changing?

I feel like I’m seeing a new frankness about the dancing body in performance. Some choreographers are shedding the conventions of decorum to reveal different angles of the crotch area, either clothed or unclothed. Perhaps the “private parts” no longer need to be so private. Perhaps they can just be part of the performing body like the feet, face, shoulders, or hands. It’s not about nudity per se. (Nudity itself is nothing new onstage, and I could never emulate the brilliance of David Parker’s treatise on the “epidemic of naked performances” he wrote in Dance Magazine nine years ago.) And I’m not talking about porn or exhibitionism. I’m talking about aesthetics.

In the past, as a choreographer in rehearsal, if you saw a maneuver that exposed the crotch area, you automatically said, Oops, we better do that from a more discreet angle. But times have changed, and what we see of the world has changed. Of the many choreographers who embrace the new frankness, I am choosing three to highlight: Andrea Miller, John Jasperse, and Luciana Acugar.

Andrea Miller: “Real, cinematic, or provocative”

Gallim Dance founder/director Andrea Miller does not accept certain conventions that still hold sway over many professionals. She recently told me that when she was choreographing for a well known repertory company, the dancers weren’t comfortable with their butts facing the audience. “They always had to cheat how they would get up or how they would move or crawl. They were like, ‘If I get up this way that means my butt’s to the audience.’ They were trying to warn me of a standard they thought I would uphold. I would say “Yes, that’s true. But I’m not concerned about that; it’s a direction we have to face sometimes.’

Andrea Miller's Sit Kneel Stand (2011), with Mario Bermudez Gil and Arika Yamada, photo by Franziska Strauss

Andrea Miller’s Sit Kneel Stand (2011), with Mario Bermudez Gil and Arika Yamada, photo by Franziska Strauss

She explains the difference in outlook this way: “They have a very proscenium, frontal projection so everything they perform is informed by the audience’s perspective. For me everything they perform is informed by the experience that is being captured in this world that the audience is having the opportunity to view. Sometimes I really want to see a body outside the aesthetic canon of entertainment dance and make it more real or cinematic or provocative.”

Miller cited the visual art world as an influence, particularly the famous Courbet painting The Origin of the World, which depicts a nude woman lying on her back with her legs open. “Just studying about that, seeing other artists, contemporary or not” was an influence.

She went on to say, “I sometimes get this feeling that when you train as a dancer it almost feels like you’re learning how to be a geisha—a sophisticated entertainer that dabbles in sensuality and sexuality but doesn’t explicitly do anything. That’s something I play with, but when I recognize it I push the other direction.”

John Jasperse: Sliding Perceptions and Shedding Taboos

John Jasperse also plays with that line. When I interviewed him for Dance Magazine before the revival of Fort Blossom, with its famously nude male duet, he said he viewed the dancing body as “an aesthetic construction, an estheticized puzzle.” As part of this choreographic puzzle, the groin area is exposed almost haphazardly. “But then there’s that moment where the slightest thing shifts and suddenly you see a sexualized body and you have to ask, What was it that suddenly changed it? And then, Why suddenly when I look at it I’m really aware of things like defecating and urinating and getting sick and dying, that’s largely a medical relationship to the body? My perception continues even now to slide around.

John Jasperse Fort Blossom Revisted, photo by Chris Taggert

John Jasperse’s Fort Blossom Revisited, photo by Chris Taggert

“In every art-making experience that involves the public, you’re handing over this space of perception and you aren’t in control of it. And the interesting thing is the way in which it slides from one axis to another. For some people I think the men’s duet still holds a kind of trangressive taboo, which is curious to me because we all have a butt and we all go to the bathroom. Those are universal things that bind us together.”

Luciana Achugar: The Anarchic Body

Revealing body parts for Luciana Achugar is more about “getting out of your head.” Last year she was interviewed by Gia Kourlas in Time Out New York before her premiere Otro Teatro (2014), which was explicitly about pleasure. “That’s why my work has moved more toward this kind of animal, primal place,” she said. “I feel like dance in contemporary culture has a power to connect us differently to our being and…part of that is to take power away from directing with your head …So the practice of being in pleasure is partially the practice of finding an aesthetic of how my body wants to move without any notion of good or bad or pretty or not pretty. An undoing of what I’ve learned.”

In some of Achugar’s work the dancer’s head is hidden—either out of sight or draped in cloth or massive wigs—while the naked crotch is exposed. “I want to have an anarchic body where there’s no place that’s more important than another,” she told Kourlas. “You can be in your bone, in your tissue, in your muscle—where making a shape is where you want to be, or you can be flowing or grounded or curled up.”

Although her work is clearly within the art realm and not the porn realm, she says, “When I’m onstage a lot of my sexuality comes out. There’s almost a desire to seduce. And for a woman to do that with her body could be objectifying herself. When I do it, I feel that I’m empowering myself. I feel strong when I’m sexual. I don’t want to be an American Apparel ad, but I don’t want to apologize for feeling my sexuality. I feel like there’s a Puritan thing in this society and I become rebellious against that.”

Part of a Larger Shift?

Of course these days people are exposing themselves in all kinds of ways on social media. Maybe no parts are “private parts” any more. So, is the downtown dance world in tune with the mainstream on this matter? Welll, maybe it’s distantly related. Then again, this new openness may go even further back. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, the feminism of the ’70s. the punk style of the 80s, and the culture wars of the 90s set the stage, as it were, for the current forms of liberation. So perhaps this is another phase in that direction. But also, this new frankness could be seen simply as exploring new territory—the territory of the body that, as Jasperse said, is universal.


Below is a photo of the work of Melinda Ring, who gives a workshop at Movement Research May 2.

Melinda Ring's Forgotten Snow (2014), photo © Paula Court

Melinda Ring’s Forgotten Snow (2014), photo © Paula Court


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What Is Genius…A Certain Too-Much-Ness?

When I moderated a panel called “Deconstructing Genius” last week at the 92nd Street Y Dance Center, I kept away from trying to define genius. All four panelists—Martha Clarke, Eiko Otake, Michael Moschen, and Elizabeth Streb—have received MacArthur fellowships, commonly called the “genius award” in the press. But the MacArthur Foundation never uses that word, and some of the panelists found the term less than useful.

STREB’s Human Fountain at the London Olympics. Photo by Julian Andrews

STREB’s Human Fountain at the London Olympics. Photo by Julian Andrews

What I see in these four amazing artists is a strong vision that allowed them to be utterly individual. More than that, they have each forged a path that eludes existing categories. They are the explorers of our time.

Now that the panel is over and I don’t have to worry about burdening anyone with that term, I want to name a few things that could qualify an artist as a genius—or at least an extraordinary artist.

But first the clichés

One cliché is that a genius is set apart from the rest of us, as the other, or somehow exotic, someone with a mind that’s beyond our understanding. Another one is that a genius is crazy. I just heard a radio voice refer to “crazy geniuses.” Those two words seem to go together in the public view. It’s unfair, and yet there’s a tiny germ of truth in that pairing. As Eiko said during the panel, “The line between genius and crazy is paper thin.”

Real attributes of extraordinary artists

But if there are geniuses among us, here are some attributes I would say mark such an artist.

• The first thing is vision—not necessarily a eureka moment, but a dawning over time. As Michael Moschen emailed me before the panel, “The world does not make sense, so I have to recalibrate in my own sensibility and make something that’s more truthful.”

• The second is curiosity—aimed curiosity. As each of these artists talked about their attraction to the unknown, they sounded to me like the great explorers—Marco Polo or Lewis & Clark—people who see a path that no one has taken, who have a sort of lusting for the unknown. Each of these artists have transgressed passed boundaries and transformed our idea of the performing arts.

• The third thing is plain hard work. As Eiko had said when I invited her onto the panel, “I am peculiar and a workaholic, but that doesn’t make me a genius.” I agree that those two criteria are not enough. But what Eiko doesn’t realize is that she—as part of the duo Eiko and Koma, and now on her own—has a third thing that is indefinable, and that is what makes her utterly unique. There’s no doubt that sheer hard work plays a role in bringing that uniqueness to light.

A Body in Fukushima, a series of photos taken by William Johnston of Eiko in Fukushima, a city irradiated and abandoned

A Body in Fukushima, a series of photos taken by William Johnston of Eiko in Fukushima, a city irradiated and abandoned


But when Eiko was describing the late Kazuo Ohno, whom she does accept as a genius (to read Eiko’s beautiful obit on him, click here and scroll down) she talked about his “too-much-ness” and then admitted she also has this too-much-ness.

And that’s what rang true for everyone on the panel.

Alessandra Ferri & Herman Cornejo in Chéri. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Alessandra Ferri & Herman Cornejo in Martha Clarke’s Chéri. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

When Martha Clarke described her piece Endangered Species, with Flora the elephant, a few monkeys and a horse, it sounded like too much. When Michael Moschen described the Chinese jugglers he learned from, their devotion to a single skill seemed too much. And Streb talked about the willingness to be impractical and “underground.” Although certainly her above ground actions—often high above ground—are wonderfully impractical. When you see Streb’s dancers leaping from great heights and making a pattern in space, that’s “too much”—meaning, overwhelming.

Michael Moschen, multi-exposure photo by Wayne Sorce

Michael Moschen, multi-exposure photo by Wayne Sorce

I think too-much-ness is the ability to go all out in one direction, to throw caution to the winds, to be totally immersed in your idea. Of course there are genius criminals too. And there are artists whose too-much-ness is merely “over-the-top” tastelessness.

But as Eiko pointed out, when the MacArthur Foundation sends a letter of congratulations to its chosen fellows, it thanks them for their contribution to humanity. So maybe genius is a too-much-ness that in some way elevates humanity. And then, and then…you have something to give to the rest of us.

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Downtown Learns Balanchine’s Serenade

With the help of Tchaikovsky, my body got swept up in the glorious sequences of Serenade. This was last Friday, when Kaitlyn Gilliland taught part of Balanchine’s choreography to a bunch of downtown types at the Danspace Project. The workshop was part of Claudia La Rocco’s brainstorm, Platform 2015: Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets.

The platform and the workshop

I think Edwin Denby would have been happy. The platform was inspired by Denby’s three-point dance interest in the ’60s: Balanchine, Cunningham, and Judson Dance Theater. La Rocco’s curiosity led her to pair Balanchine dancers with post-Cunningham dancer/choreographers.

Gilliland at St. Mark's Church, photo by Ian Douglas

Gilliland at St. Mark’s Church, photo by Ian Douglas

Gilliland, a beautiful young dancer who couldn’t quite fit in at New York City Ballet, is now freelances with smaller groups. But during her years with NYCB she danced Serenade many times, often as the Dark Angel.

Gorgeous torso movements, like a big side bend or an undulation in parallel that travels up the spine, are what give the ballet its wind-blown look. Although my legs don’t work like they used to and my feet cramp up when I try to point my toes, my upper body felt those shifts as pure pleasure. As you opened your sternum upward to the stained glass window in the dome of St. Mark’s Church, you felt like you could touch divinity—or at least George Balanchine.

Kaitlyn Gilliland teaching at Danspace, St. Mark's Church, photo by Ian Douglas

Kaitlyn Gilliland teaching at Danspace, St. Mark’s Church, photo by Ian Douglas

But wait—I’m a modern dancer

Kaitlyn demonstrating, me with hands on waist, photo by Ian Douglas

Kaitlyn demonstrating, me with hands on waist, photo by Ian Douglas

However, I am (or was) a modern dancer and choreographer, and although I grew up training in ballet, there were some things in this workshop that my body/mind refused to do. One is what I call icky fingers. Kaitlyn explained that all fingers in ballet should be separate. Well, I spent enough time as a teenager at the School of American Ballet sticking the pinky out, that my adult hand just wouldn’t do that. Also, I think icky fingers are a gender thing: most ballet men hold their fingers loosely together rather than feathering them prettily.

At another point Kaitlyn advised us to squeeze — I think that was in relation to the legs having to suddenly open from parallel to first. I blurted out, “We don’t squeeze downtown.” As Janet Charleston put it later: “We don’t squeeze but we engage.” It’s a different way of articulating muscle usage, and a different aesthetic.

Common ground between ballet and modern

But there were other aspects of Kaitlyn’s workshop that a modern dancer could relate to. When she described being centered as making constant adjustments, and showed us how she keeps moving even when standing in place, I thought, That’s Steve Paxton’s “small dance.” When she waved both arms to the left, seaweed style, it looked like an Isadora Duncan movement that found its way into Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides. (Fokine was influenced by Duncan at the time he made that famous ballet).

The seaweed step, photo by Ian Douglas

The seaweed step, photo by Ian Douglas

Surprisingly, since so much of Serenade is in unison, Kaitlyn taught the steps with leeway so you could decide certain details for yourself, like the exact the moment you change your focus from your hand to your lower left. She was more interested in us having a sense of purpose than being in perfect unison. (Yay!)

When answering our questions, Kaitlyn had a quiet wisdom. She kept everything fluid, whether it had to do with shifting direction from flat side to éffacé, or how she felt about working in a hierarchical company. Her answer to the last question was, It changed every day.

More Serenade stories

When I think about Balanchine ballets, Serenade is never far from my mind. I once moderated a panel on the ballet for SAB, and I collected quotes from Suki Schorer, Wendy Whelan, Brian Reeder, Lourdes Lopez and others. Earlier this year, when I posted “Start the New Year with Serenade,” I had no idea that I would actually be able to learn some of it.

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Serenade © The Balanchine Trust, photo © Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Serenade © The Balanchine Trust, photo © Angela Sterling

Last year, for added ghostliness of Serenade, I concurred with Elizabeth Kendall’s hunch that the ending (when one dancer, lifted high up, opens her arms to the heavens) was inspired by the mysterious drowning death of young Balanchivadzes’s dance partner at the Imperial School.

That theory didn’t come up in the workshop, but the grandeur of those steps to that music could easily stem from some deep spiritual questions. The choreographer came to this country in 1933, nine years after the drowning and his departure from Russia. Couldn’t that tragedy have had a lingering effect?

Everyone has a story about Serenade. Kaitlyn read an email on her iPhone from Sterling Hyltin, a principal at NYCB, that painted a lovely picture of the ballet as an ocean setting.

Now, after learning a few of the steps and hearing more stories, I can’t wait to see Serenade at New York City Ballet again.

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Ratmansky’s Sly History Lessons

Embedded in Alexei Ratmansky’s ballets are history lessons for us. When watching American Ballet Theatre dance his Shostakovich Trilogy (2012), I saw a keen attention to shape, a gravitas in the surging masses, that reminded of Léonide Massine’s symphonic ballets. Massine was the top choreographer of the 1930s but is now all but forgotten. (More about Massine later.)

Sprinkling References to the Past

If you watch Ratmansky’s ballets closely, you’ll see images of previous ballets tucked into his choreography. In Pictures at an Exhibition, which he made for NYC Ballet last year, the first scene borrows the formation of the nine goons (drinking companions) of Balanchine’s Prodigal Son. And later the dancer in yellow, a role created by Wendy Whelan, quietly touches the floor. It calls to mind the end of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering when the man in brown touches the floor, letting us feel that all the dancers are a community standing on one ground. Whelan also stoops to the floor in Ratmansky’s 2006 Russian Seasons, so that gesture was some kind of farewell to her on that stage. (By the way, in this clip Amar Ramasar, who is terrific in Pictures, talks about the choreographer’s impetus.)


Ratmansky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for NYCB with Gonzalo Garcia, homepage photo of Adrian Danchig-Waring and Wendy Whelan, photos by Paul Kolnik

In Ratmansky’s Cinderella (2002), which the Mariinsky brought to BAM last month, there’s a moment in the first act when the stepmother and stepsisters, during their slapstick “dancing lesson,” land on the floor in the final position of Fokine’s Dying Swan. It’s only a split second but it prompted a chuckle to realize that these images are at the choreographer’s fingertips.

Did you ever look for the “Ninas” hidden in the drawings of theater caricaturist Al Hirschfeld? That’s a little what this has become for me. There are many reasons to see Ratmansky’s works more than once, but his version of “finding the Ninas” is definitely one of them.

Soviet Innovators

Ratmansky has not only quoted Balanchine, Fokine, and Robbins, but he’s made us aware of the pioneers of Soviet ballet like Gorsky, Vainonen, and Lopukhov. In my 2010 interview with Ratmansky, he mentions that he based his new Don Quixote for Dutch National Ballet on Alexander Gorsky’s version. Gorsky was the Bolshoi Ballet director who steered the company through the rocky Russian Revolution. Ratmansky’s remakes of Bolt and The Bright Stream pay tribute to Fyodor Lopukhov, one of the first great innovators of Soviet Ballet in St. Petersburg. And his recent staging of Flames of Paris honors Vasily Vainonen, whose 1934 Nutcracker is still performed by students at the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Until now, Flames of Paris was known to us only as a vehicle for pyrotechnics at galas.

Getting Back to Massine

Massine with Moira Shearer on the set of The Red Shoes, 1948

Massine with Moira Shearer on the set of The Red Shoes, 1948

Massine made more than a hundred ballets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the companies that followed. He also danced in, and choreographed for, Hollywood movies. You’re most likely to know him as the Cobbler in The Red Shoes or the choreographer of Gaité Parisienne (1938). His symphonic ballets, starting with Les Présages in 1933, were a breakthrough.

Irina Baronova as Passion with David Lichine in Les Présages (1933), sets and costumes by Andre Masson, photo by Studio Batlles

Irina Baronova with David Lichine in Les Présages (1933), sets and costumes by Andre Masson, photo by Studio Batlles

In the new book about Irina Baronova, the famous baby ballerina describes Les Présages, in which she played the role of Passion—at age 13. “It was a sensation when it opened in Monte Carlo and then Paris. Some musicians thought that it was a sacrilege to try and interpret a symphony that was a complete work of art in itself. The art world had never seen an abstract symbolist ballet set before, making no attempt to represent reality. The dance world was shocked by the modernity of the work coming from a classical ballet company. Les Présages immediately established Massine as an important choreographer.”

As I mentioned, Massine’s symphonic ballets surfaced for me when I saw certain pieces by Ratmansky. So I wasn’t surprised when I learned, at the Sundays on Broadway last week, that Ratmansky is an admirer of Massine ballets. Léonide Massine’s daughter Tatiana, who was the guest that night, told us that when Ratmansky was director of the Bolshoi Ballet, he presented an evening of three Massine works: Three-Cornered Hat, Les Présages, and Gaité Parisienne. In 2008, in The New York Times, Alastair Macaulay wrote, “I find it fascinating that at a time when it has become unusual to see a single Massine ballet anywhere, Mr. Ratmansky presented a Massine triple bill at the Bolshoi, thus bringing honor in Moscow to the most celebrated choreographer ever to come from that city.”

One can see the command of surging groups that was a signature of Massine’s symphonic ballets reflected in Ratmansky’s Snow Scene in his Nutcracker, Concerto DSCH (2008), and the Shostakovitch Trilogy (click here for a clip of San Francisco Ballet in this great work).

SFB in Shostakovich Trilogy by Ratmansky, photo by EricTomasson

SFB in Shostakovich Trilogy by Ratmansky, photo by EricTomasson

This 1936 clip of the original Les Présages, shot in Australia when the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was on tour, shows how grounded, how focused on mass motion  Massine’s symphonic ballets were. (Unfortunately you cannot hear the Tchaikovsky music.)

Massine's Gaité Parisienne at ABT, photo by MIRA

Massine’s Gaité Parisienne at ABT, photo by MIRA

There’s a bit of a warrior feeling, especially when the dancers shake their fists at the heavens. You can see why Michel Fokine, on seeing another one of Massine’s symphonic ballets, quipped, “Choreartium is Mary Wigman sur les pointes.” (Wigman was the counterpart to Martha Graham in Germany). This is the complex, earth-bound side of Massine, as opposed to the frothy, silly side displayed in Gaité Parisienne, which returns to ABT this spring.

And Back to Ratmansky

In a way, Ratmansky is a one-man peace branch between the U.S. and Russia. In a previous posting, I wrote, “Maybe, after bringing us The Bright Stream and On the Dnieper, Ratmansky has made it OK for the American ballet world to look back on Soviet times with something like curiosity rather than dread.”

We can thank Ratmansky for dipping our toes in that history. And while I’m at it, I want to thank Barnard’s Lynn Garafola for organizing an excellent symposium at Columbia University last week called Russian Movement Culture of the 1920s and 1930s. It revealed to me a wealth of experiments that mingled modern dance and ballet.




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Looking Back on 2014

(Note: For my annual list of “Best and Worst of 2014,” click here.)

Endings As Beginnings

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks rehearsing Restless Creature, photo by Erin Baiano

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks rehearsing Restless Creature, photo by Erin Baiano. Homepage photo of Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, by W. P.

Wendy Whelan’s farewell turned out to be a joyous event. She radiated happiness that lit up the whole stage, and the other dancers basked in her sunlight. Even in the spontaneous moments she was utterly natural in her movement, accepting the waves of love from her audience graciously. When Jacques d’Amboise stepped onstage to pay his respects, he swept her up in a brief waltz. It was a wonderful sendoff to her new career as impresario, innovator, and modern dancer.

• After four decades as a duo, the famed Eiko & Koma are going their separate professional ways (for now). Eiko has embarked on a solo project, the haunting Body in Place series. (Koma is delving into visual arts; they are still together as a couple.)

• Obama’s pledge to open relations with Cuba will end the standoff and begin a new era of friendship between the U.S. and dance-rich Cuba. I’m not the only one who was celebrating at this news. Perhaps more U.S. dance companies will perform there, and maybe American students wanting to get Russian-style technique will study at the legendary National Ballet School in Havana. It’s tantalizing to think of the cultural exchanges that may ensue.

• So sad to see the last show of ABT’s magnificent, psychologically satisfying Nutcracker at BAM, with excellent choreography by Ratmansky. Next year the company will begin performing it annually at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in California, with whom ABT is also partnering to establish a new ballet school. 

• DNA on Chambers Street went under, but their building was awarded to Gina Gibney by the Department of Cultural Affairs. The new Gibney Dance Center has gotten off to a roaring start, with many ideas for making it a hub of activity.

• The Trey McIntyre Project fell apart (here’s my guess why), allowing McIntyre more time for other projects. This news added fuel to the argument that the single-choreographer company model is simply outmoded.

Other Beginnings

• CUNY Dance Initiative: Someone figured out a win-win solution to the fact that choreographers need space and the 14 or so colleges in the CUNY system have studio hours to spare. The result is that a diverse group of dance have been awarded space on campuses in all five boroughs. While in residence, these dance artists may just unlock a love of dance in some students along the way.

Cathy Weis, photo by Jacques-Jean Tiziou,  www.jjtiziou.net

Cathy Weis, photo by Jacques-Jean Tiziou, www.jjtiziou.net

• The inimitable Cathy Weis has introduced a salon series called Sundays on Broadway in her SoHo loft. The videographer/choreographer welcomes her guests with drinks, a carpet to lounge on, and friendly discussion. The series launched with documentaries from the 60s (works by John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Yvonne Rainer and more). Sundays on Broadway has also presented works-in-progress by dance artists like Jennifer Miller and Jonathan Kinzel. It’s free, so take a look at the current calendar—in a couple weeks because the 2015 lineup isn’t posted yet.


• Ballet to gaga: Top ballet dancers are flocking to gaga as a way to expand their range—and maybe having a little experimental fun as well. Osipova and Vasiliev went to Tel Aviv to learn a work by Ohad Naharin and took his gaga sessions to get in the mood. Diana Vishneva invited Danielle Agami to teach a gaga workshop in her festival in Moscow, and I heard that Benjamin Millepied wants to import gaga for the Paris Opéra Ballet. Naharin is ready for this: He has said that gaga is a tool for ballet dancers as well as for modern dancers.

• California Women: When I traveled to the West Coast in June, almost everywhere I looked, both in the Bay Area and L.A. dance scenes, women were in charge. Long live the women’s movement!

• More transgender dancers: At Danspace, the Museum of Modern Art, and Baryshnikov Art Center, I’ve come across really good dancers who happen to be transgender. For a while it seemed to me that Seattle was leading the way on this, but now I realize that crossing gender borders is happening all over. I have no doubt that this particular kind of courage enriches the field.

• Profusion of reality shows: Seems like everyone from NYCB to Condé Naste Entertainment is producing reality shows on dance. I was even filmed for one of them (“Dance School Diaries” on the Dance On network), when I served as a judge in the Los Angeles YAGP. (I don’t think my footage was in the final episode but I didn’t have the patience to find out.) I suppose this is a good avenue by which kids all over the country learn about our field, but it’s not my favorite way to see dance.

What trends have you noticed in 2014?





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Wahoo! We’re Friends With Cuba Now

Ballet Nacional de Cuba in Don Q, with Viengsay Valdes

Ballet Nacional de Cuba in Don Q, with Viengsay Valdes, courtesy Valdes

Great news for the dance world! Obama just announced that the United States will resume friendly relations with Cuba. As Rachel Maddow pointed out, Cuba is good at producing ballet dancers, baseball players and…spies. This last of these professions is what led up to the exchange of political prisoners that made yesterday’s terrific news possible.

We will now set up an embassy in Havana and they will have one here. It will take longer for the embargo to disappear, but we’re on the right track.

There are many reasons that the U.S. should open up to our island neighbor just 90 miles off our shores, and music and dance are at the top of the list. Singing and dancing are so much part of their daily lives that theor professional performances are infused with a sense of ease and warmth, and shot through with sheer energy.


Carlos Acosta in class at BNC for international visitors. All photos by me in 2010 unless otherwise noted.

I was enchanted with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC) when I first went there in 2006 for the International Ballet Festival of Havana. The halls of the theaters were dimly lit during intermission, but the dancers lit up the stage and put everyone in a party mood. When the Cuban audience really likes something—which is often—they clap and cheer along.

Osipova & Vasiliev, 2006, photo by Margaret Willis

Osipova & Vasiliev, 2006, photo by Margaret Willis

I realized that BNC is loved all over the world and that it was only the U.S. that had bad relations with the country. (Our 53-year embargo was unilateral, meaning no other country penalized them in this way.) I met colleagues from Canada, England, Sweden, Italy, Argentina, and of course Russia while I was there. That’s where I first saw Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev (they were teenagers then), and Mats Ek and Ana Laguna. And of course, I met the legendary Alicia Alonso and her ex-husband, the late Fernando Alonso, who was responsible for dance education throughout the island.

Hallway of National Ballet School, Havana

Stairwell of National Ballet School, Havana

Later, in 2010, American Ballet Theatre, along with a posse of supporters, performed in the Havana festival, and Kevn McKenzie taught a class at the National Ballet School. That year, a small group of NYC Ballet dancers also had a great success.

These are fruitful exchanges—and necessary for the artistic growth of BNC. Although the Cuban training is excellent, the taste in choreography tends to be, shall we say, behind the times. The reason for so many defections, beside the poverty, is that the dancers rarely get to perform new works. Alicia Alonso, who is the force behind the strict training, choreographs ballets that look like they are from the ’50s—the same vintage as the cars in Havana’s streets.

Rehearsal at Danza Contemporanea de Cuba

Rehearsal at Danza Contemporanea de Cuba

At Danza Contemporanea studio

At Danza Contemporanea studio

Interestingly, contemporary dance in Cuba, though less heralded and less supported by the government, is more artistically sophisticated. I saw the fabulously gritty/sexy  Danza Contemporanea de Cuba in their studio. The drummers ignited passionate dancing and each dancer had individual flair. When they brought a program to the Joyce in 2011, though, their rep wasn’t as exciting as I knew it could be. But this brought up interesting issues, so I posed this question: How do you keep cultural identity without falling into clichés?

Osniel Dalgado with Malpaso, photo by Roberto Leon

Osniel Delgado with Malpaso, photo by Roberto Leon

Osnel Delgado, a terrific wildman of a dancer who emerged from Danza Contemporanea, is bringing his own company, Malpaso Dance Company to the Joyce in March and Jacob’s Pillow in August. My guess is that both Danza Contemporanea and Malpaso will be upping their number of touring weeks.

Big thanks to Obama for ending a ridiculously one-sided policy of squashing a small country’s economy—but not their spirit. I’m excited, as are various key people on social media (see below) to witness the cultural exchanges that blossom because of this. Many Cuban defectors have been enriching ballet companies around the world with passionate, technically adept dancing—not to mention superhuman turns and balances. (Click here to read Alicia Alonso’s statement on defectors.) And now our dance artists can give back to Cuba.

Viengsay Valdes rehearsing Swan Lake in BNC studio

Viengsay Valdes rehearsing Swan Lake in BNC studio. Homepage photo of Valdes by Matthew Karas.

All photos by me in 2010 unless otherwise indicated.

This new detente is a wish come true for Viengsay Valdes, the superb dancer who is now the prima of BNC. At the end of this feature story on her, she says it would be fantastic if the White House opens up cultural exchanges. But she also admitted in a later issue that she is well aware that the Cuban company is behind the times. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the opening of relations also opens up the choreographic possibilities for BNC?

Here are some quick reactions to my question on Twitter and Facebook, What good dance news do you think will come of opening of relations with #Cuba?

Eduardo Vilaro, artistic director, Ballet Hispanico: “Loving Obama’s bold move. Excited by the possibilities.”

Robert Johnson, dance writer: “American ballet students will travel there to study. More artistic exchanges.”

Lourdes Lopez, artistic director, Miami City Ballet: “so excited to see more Cuban talent here and share artistic experiences.”

Judith Sanchez Ruiz, dancer/choreographer based in Berlin, former member of Trisha Brown Dance Company: “A big DAY for CUBA and US. Thank you Mr. President. It has been a long way but finally is over. Let’s meet in (mi Habana)….It is such an incredible news for Cubans all over the world….- it is the right thing to do…. “NO ES FACIL”. Just Obama could have done something like this. Incredible!!!!”

Jordan Levin, arts critic, Miami Herald: “More of cult xchange that brot us MalPaso & growth in Cuban dance world.”

Cynthia Bond: “I took US class w/AfroCuba de Mantanzas in 90s: more pls!”

Toba Leah Singer, author of Fernando Alonso: Father of Cuban Dance: “This is the biggest Cuban victory since the defeat of the CIA-engineered Bay of Pigs invasion, during which time Fernando offered to send the dancers back from their tour of Eastern Europe to participate in defending the island against the Yanqui attacks. He reasoned that they had great stamina and would make excellent marksmen. Fidel thanked him, but rejected the offer, saying, “Let them dance. It’s what they do best, and dance is also important in defending the Revolution.”




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John Cage’s Revolutionary Relevance

John Cage’s revolutionary idea: Dance (or any art) is not about something, it is something.

Cage watching Carolyn Brown in her dressing room at BAM, 1970

Cage watching Carolyn Brown in her dressing room at BAM, 1970

He lived this philosophy rather than preached it. His m.o. was curiosity, joy, and hard work, and it’s now been captured in John Cage Was, a big new book of photos taken by James Klosty between 1967 and ’72. Those were the years Klosty trailed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, whose members included Carolyn Brown, Mel Wong, Sandra Neels (who has reconstructed Cunningham’s work), and Douglas Dunn (click here for his riddle-like tribute to Merce). Accompanying these masterful yet spontaneous photographs are quotes from dancers, composers, and visual artists, all incorporating the words “John Cage was.”

Cage was the architect of the ideas that made Merce Cunningham a renegade: the idea of creating music and dance separately but performing them simultaneously; the idea that there is no silence—there is always sound inside us or around us—and no stillness; and the idea of chance as an alternative to personal taste when composing music or dance.

He was also Cunningham’s musical advisor, driver of the VW tour bus, and the father figure who made touring fun for the dancers. His hobbies—playing chess and hunting for mushrooms—were legendary.

Cage on right, dancers, from left are, Carolyn Brown, Sandra Neels, Susanna Haymen-chaffee, Mel Wong, Chase Robinson

Cage on right, dancers, from left are, Carolyn Brown, Sandra Neels, Susana Hayman-Chaffey, Mel Wong, Chase Robinson, 1971

Many well-known people have colorful ways to describe Cage in this book. Baryshnikov calls him a “wicked genius.” Twyla Tharp calls him a “gentle anarchist.” Robert Wilson contributes a visual poem about his “renaissance mind.” Carolyn Brown (whose own book on Cage and Cunningham is passionately complex ) says Cage was “the heart and soul of the Cunningham Dance Company, making the experience of dancing with Merce an ever-surprising, vital, life-changing voyage.” The composer John Luther Adams writes, “Cage’s music is all about…the experience of listening.” You will find other quotes by Yvonne Rainer, Mark Morris, Stephen Sondheim, Gavin Bryars, and Yoko Ono.

Merce and Carolyn Brown rehearsing Suite in Westbeth Studio, 1972

Merce and Carolyn Brown rehearsing Suite in Westbeth Studio with Cage at the piano, 1972

Klosty’s photos reveal Cage to be an impish, spontaneous person. (I remember when he “played” the cacti at Danspace in 1977, with utter glee at the sound of each pluck of the prickly plant.) He was always up for a photo op, unlike Cunningham who, it may be apparent in these pages, was less eager to cooperate with the camera.

Cage with Carolyn Brown and Chase Robinson, 1971

Cage with Carolyn Brown and Chase Robinson, 1971

As Klosty writes in his introduction, he hopes that readers will find here “glimpses into an always searching, unfailingly playful, uniquely beautiful spirit.” And those glimpses abound in these pages. And if you want to find out why Ain Gordon, son of David and Valda, at the age of 5 or 6, called John Cage his best friend, well, buy the book.

I love the clarity of Cage’s idea that art or dance is something in itself rather than in the service to something else. And yet I still hear people struggling to define what a dance is “about,” assuming they’ll find a theme or “meaning” if they dig under a pile of form or pattern. Yes, sometimes there is a theme that can be identified, but other times there may be a focus, not necessarily a theme.

I think Cage liberated us from certain stale expectations and conventions. He accomplished that with his gusto for life as much as with his groundbreaking ideas. Thank you, James Klosty and Wesleyan University Press (which has published seven of Cage’s books, starting in 1961), for reminding us of his presence with this profusion of beautiful, at times poetic images. Click here to order the book.

Merce and John at Westbeth, possibly looking into the makings of Cage's "prepared piano," 1972

Merce and John at Westbeth, possibly looking into the makings of Cage’s “prepared piano,” 1972. All photos by James Klosty




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